Student and mentor

“An antidote to heaviness.”

That’s how Healey School teacher Emma Daniels summed up the poetry workshops she and artist Andrine Pierresaint developed for her seventh grade ELA students. A generous grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, allowed Pierresaint, an award-winning spoken word poet, to include all 47 seventh grade students in a six week writing and performance workshop that was capped with a performance showcase in December.

Before the workshop sessions with Andrine Pierresaint began, Ms. Daniels introduced her students to the poetry unit and explored literary devices such as tone, theme, and alliteration through Kwame Alexander’s Newbery medal-winning novel in verse, The Crossover.

Then Ms. Pierresaint began her artist in residence workshop series. She started by performing one of her own poems, “Flag Football,” and reading two poems that have inspired her: Maya Angelou’s “Here I Rise” and Eva L. Ewing’s “Affirmation.” Ms. Pierresaint then gave each student a poetic license---a physical certificate to allow them to take the leap of creating poems of their own.

Subsequent workshops involved Ms. Pierresaint and Ms. Daniels co-facilitating discussions about poetry. They provided students with warm-up games, graphic organizers, writing prompts, and small group feedback to scaffold students’ own ideas and bring them from their minds to the page and ultimately to the performance stage.

One of the writing exercises that Pierresaint designed was to have students work around the theme of a “house” and an “inheritance,” a nod to themes in The Crossover. And the jumping-off line for every poem was “Life isn’t easy here at the Healey House.” Working in groups of two to four, students chose the “room” they lived in together at the Healey House and wrote poems set in that space. The subsequent workshops focused on revisions, and public speaking best practices such as attention to volume and diction, that are the honed skills behind effective spoken word performance. An example of one group’s poem is here, where they chose the garden of the Healey House. Students performed their spoken word poems in the school library and Ms. Daniels recorded them. The final session was a poetry slam showcase for the entire seventh grade in the Healey School cafetorium.

When asked about the artist in residency series, Ms. Daniels says, “The highlights were the ways it overtly and covertly combated the negative effects that COVID-19 has had. It required students to think out of the box, and really use their imaginations to create a complex, layered, wonderfully absurd world.”

What’s next? Ms. Daniels explains, “We are working on a close reading of the ‘Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,’ a screenplay of an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ I have been having students act out sections as we prepare to write an essay on the text. The work Andrine did [during the workshops] with students around tone in poetry and presentation has definitely been helpful. She made poetry come alive and inspired students to explore their artistic identities.”

---Abby Luthin, Writing Communications Specialist

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